Great Britain Rugby League Lions 2019: Long wait almost over for GB return

By Dave WoodsBBC rugby league correspondent
Great Britain side receive a traditional Maori welcome
Great Britain - led by captain James Graham - received a traditional Maori welcome in New Zealand before the opening match of their 2019 tour
Great Britain Rugby League Lions v Tonga Invitational XIII
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton Date: Saturday, 26 October Kick-off: 08:00 BST Coverage: Live on BBC Two (07:30-10:30 BST), highlights on BBC One 13:15-14:30 BST (repeat 17:30-21:15 BST - BBC Red Button)

The waiting is nearly over.

After 12 years in hibernation, the Great Britain Rugby League Lions will re-emerge on to the international stage on Saturday when they walk out at the FMG Stadium in Hamilton to face Tonga.

It will be a day for the history buffs - a first meeting between these two international sides, and a 50th cap for Great Britain captain James Graham, who will become only the fourth British player after Jim Sullivan, Mick Sullivan and Adrian Morley to reach that golden landmark.

But more importantly, it will be an occasion for every rugby league fan, and general sport lover, to relish.

Experiencing a Tonga rugby league game in this part of the world has become a bucket-list occasion. Their fans are sensational.

At the 2017 World Cup, the Tongans living in New Zealand turned up in force whenever their national heroes were in town. A sea of red was accompanied by an ear-splitting sound that mixed excitement, passion and religion, washed into every stadium and helped take the side to the brink of the World Cup final itself.

The Great Britain players and fans who were in Auckland for that spine-tingling semi-final between the Mate Ma'a and England will know exactly what to expect. There will be more of the same in Hamilton.

Unsettling politics often goes hand in hand with rugby league, and the Tongan side has been blighted by an unseemly internal row in the build-up to this game.

There has been a rift between the current Tongan Rugby League board and several stars of the national side.

Coach Kristian Woolf - who led them through the World Cup and who will be the new head coach at Super League champions St Helens in 2020 - was stood down and captain Jason Taumalolo and several other stellar names threatened to pull out of this autumn's internationals as a result.

But the International Rugby League stepped in, negotiating directly with the King of Tonga, and bypassed the Tongan Rugby League to set up an alternative side. The team that takes on Great Britain will be a Tonga Invitational XIII.

Tonga fans at 2017 World Cup
Tonga provided one of the major stories of the 2017 World Cup, with their incredible support helping them to the semi-finals for the first time

They will be able to wear their usual full red jerseys, but cannot be referred to by their usual official nickname of the Mate Ma'a (Die for Tonga).

However, the IRL has given the game full Test match status and, because the Tongan Rugby League has been taken out of the equation, Woolf will again coach the side and has a full complement of players to pick from.

As well as playing Great Britain, they will also come up against Australia next week as part of the newly inaugurated Oceanic Cup.

So the first Test match back for Great Britain since the home series against New Zealand in 2007 will be something of a challenge.

But as big and powerful as the Tongan side undoubtedly are, Great Britain should be able to more than match their physicality.

In naming his 21-man squad earlier in the week, coach Wayne Bennett has indicated what his starting 13 and four-man bench will be and there will be plenty of XXL shirts on show.

He has picked three front-line props in his starting pack, with Warrington's Chris Hill, St Helens' Luke Thompson - who has been getting rave reviews from all observers this year - and Graham in the front six.

To keep things tasty, another Saint, Alex Walmsley, and South Sydney's Tom Burgess will be fired into the thick of it from the bench at the appropriate moment.

Luke Thompson
Luke Thompson was voted man of the match in St Helens' Grand Final win over Salford earlier this month

It is a Canberra trio that makes up the rest of the starting pack: Josh Hodgson, the schemer-in-chief working out of dummy-half, Elliot Whitehead and NRL second rower of the year John Bateman running wider.

And proving that size matters, Salford's Josh Jones will thunder on from the sidelines.

The backline makes for some interesting reading. British rugby league purists will be uneasy that Australia-born Lachlan Coote and Jackson Hastings will both be able to call themselves Lions when they step out for the first time.

But the deal is done, the decision is made and why should Great Britain not take advantage of qualification rules used regularly by other nations in the 13-a-side code, and in other sports around the world?

Coote has been a steadying, classy influence at St Helens all season at full-back and scrum-half Hastings has been nothing short of inspirational for Salford during the past 18 months. In playing terms, both have more than earned their inclusion.

Zak Hardaker was late on to the selection radar this year. He had a more than solid first season back as a Wigan player, but the full-back was not called up into the Elite Performance Squad until the very last minute when he was told of his inclusion on this tour on the Sunday before departure.

His utility value is recognised by his selection at centre to cover a position in which Great Britain are light. The other three-quarters virtually pick themselves - Sydney Roosters' Ryan Hall, Huddersfield's Jermaine McGillvary are the only two specialist wingers, while Wigan's Oli Gildart is the only specialist centre.

And despite a plethora of halves to chose from, it would have been hard to leave out Gareth Widdop given his NRL pedigree and outstanding form for England in his most recent appearances.

The one final bench spot has gone to Jonny Lomax, but could easily have gone to hooker Daryl Clark, or any of the other halves - George Williams, Blake Austin, Jake Connor and Jake Trueman.

One thing the selected players will know come kick-off is the job that Bennett expects from each of them. Perform, and they will book their spot for the next week against New Zealand. Disappoint, and the axe will fall.

In the meantime, get set for the noise and fury of a full-blooded Test occasion to welcome the Great Britain Lions back to international rugby league.

Great Britain 19-man squad to face Tonga Invitational XIII

James Graham (capt), Lachlan Coote, Jermaine McGillvary, Zak Hardaker, Oliver Gildart, Ryan Hall, Gareth Widdop, Jackson Hastings, Chris Hill, Josh Hodgson, Luke Thompson, John Bateman, Elliott Whitehead, Josh Jones, Tom Burgess, Jonny Lomax, Alex Walmsley, Jake Connor, Jack Hughes.

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